on 20 November 2013
"The Painted Bird" is set in an (ostensibly) unnamed country in Eastern Europe under German occupation during World War II. The narrator is a young boy (only six years old when the novel opens) who has become separated from his parents and who spends most of the next six years wandering from one village to the next, either being sheltered by the local peasant population or surviving by living on his wits.
As a boy Jerzy Kosiński did indeed live through the German occupation of his native Poland. The book, however, is not autobiographical, although the author did at one time give the impression that it was. The experiences of his narrator were not his own. It may be an exaggeration to describe the family (as one reviewer does) as "living in middle-class comfort"- comfort, for all social classes, was in short supply in Nazi-occupied Poland- but the young Jozef Lewinkopf was never separated from his parents and the family spent the war living together under the assumed name of "Kosinski".
The title refers to what the narrator describes as a folk-custom in the area, that of capturing a bird and painting it in bright colours. When the bird attempts to rejoin its own kind they see it as an outsider and violently peck it to death. This image has some relevance to the narrator's own situation. The inhabitants of the area are predominantly blond and blue-eyed, and are suspicious of the dark-haired, dark-eyed narrator who because of his appearance is considered an outsider. (It is implied that the boy is Jewish, although this is never directly stated).
The title is also relevant to one of the book's major theme, that of cruelty. Yet despite the setting in Nazi-occupied Europe, virtually none of the many acts of cruelty witnessed by the young narrator are actually committed by the Germans themselves, although towards the end there is a mass rape and pogrom carried out by the Germans' Kalmuck allies. The narrator hears dark stories about the concentration camps to which Jews and Gypsies are being taken, but we never see inside such places. Indeed, one of the novel's few acts of compassion comes when a German soldier spares the life of the boy, whom he has been ordered to kill.
In fact, apart from the Kalmuck pogrom and an incident in which a Soviet sniper takes revenge for the deaths of some of his comrades by picking off several villagers at random, most of the barbarism described has no connection with the war at all. Instead, Kosinski relates numerous instances of extreme violence perpetrated by the peasants against one another. A farmer blinds his wife's lover by gouging out his eyes with a spoon. A simple-minded girl is battered to death by a mob of local women who accuse her of seducing their husbands and lovers. A guest is stabbed to death at a wedding without anyone- including the bride and groom- turning a hair. Murder, rape and incest are commonplace. The boy himself is frequently beaten and becomes dumb after being flung into a pit of manure.
There is an interesting contrast between Kosinski's language in this book and that of Joseph Conrad, another Polish-born novelist writing in English. In Conrad, at least in his early work, one occasionally comes across a faulty construction or foreign-sounding usage which reminds us that he was not a native English speaker, but in general he writes a classic, formal English prose. In Kosinski one is less likely to come across such reminders of his foreign origins, and yet it nevertheless seems clear that he is not a native-born Anglo-Saxon. He writes in a deliberately simple prose, in relatively short sentences with fewer dependent clauses than most British or American writers would use. Although his vocabulary and grammar are those of an adult rather than a child, this deliberate simplicity seems appropriate to a book about childhood. It also gives his writing a stark power appropriate to the horrors which form his subject-matter.
"The Painted Bird" was a highly controversial book when first published in 1965. It was immediately banned by the authorities in Communist-ruled Poland, always suspicious of anything emanating from the pen of an émigré. (Kosinski had left Poland for the United States in 1957). It was also unpopular in anti-Communist émigré circles, who felt that Kosinski had drawn an over-sympathetic picture of the Red Army. Poles of all political persuasions disliked what they saw as a slanderous portrayal of their countrymen. (Although the country in which the events take place is ostensibly nameless, there can be little doubt that it is supposed to be Poland). Others disliked what they saw as an excessive concentration on sexual violence. Many critics, however, praised the power of Kosinski's writing.
It is unfortunate that Kosinski gave the impression that the book was autobiographical. In order to strengthen this impression he made his hero only six years old when the war began, which would have been his own age in 1939, and I felt that this was a mistake as it detracted from the book's realism. I could more easily accept a similar story about an older boy- a teenager, say- surviving in this manner, but the idea of a six-year-old managing to survive on his own without any real help from adults seemed less than credible. A real six-year-old would doubtless quickly have succumbed to cold or hunger, even if he managed to avoid being murdered.
The story is unrealistic in another way, too. No doubt incidents like the ones described all took place somewhere in the world during the period in which the book is set; it strains credulity to believe that they all could have happened to, or been witnessed by, the same person in the space of six years. I also found it difficult to believe that rural people in Poland, or indeed anywhere in Eastern Europe, were quite as mediaeval during the 1940s as Kosinski portrays them. This atmosphere of mediaevalism was particularly strong in the first half of the book; only the occasional mention of a modern invention like tin cans, guns or concrete reminds us that the action is taking place in 1940 rather than, say, 1340. Not only are the peasants cruel and violent but they are also dirty, squalid, unhygienic, sexually perverted, stupid, ignorant, uneducated, illiterate, superstitious, bigoted and every bit as anti-Semitic and racist as their German enemies. Kosinski implies that the belief that blue eyes and fair hair are the mark of those favoured by God was not a Nazi aberration but a commonplace in Eastern Europe.
Kosiński's prose is certainly eloquent and powerful, but I have my reservations about "The Painted Bird". Although it is set in wartime, in an area under Nazi control, it is less an anti-war book, or an anti-Nazi book, than the expression of a fundamentally misanthropic philosophy. The message is less "war is hell" or "dictatorship is hell" than "life is hell, and it is our fellow-men who make it so". There is something depressing about the implication that, war or no war, Nazis or no Nazis, the characters in this book would have been just as nasty and bestial.